The seeds of our problems, backwardness and regression were not planted by colonialism as many would have us believe. Rather, colonialism was the natural result of the dialectical process that was unfolding concomitantly in the Arabic-speaking societies on the one hand and in Europe on the other.
In other words, to claim we were backward because we were colonized is to put the cart before the horse. The reverse is true: it is because we were backward that we were colonized. And we were backward because the conservative school triumphed over the school of reason, logic and philosophy in our intellectual and – to use a contemporary term – cultural life.
After the colonialist era came independence. And as independence was not achieved through intellectual and cultural action but through political/nationalistic action, it was followed in Arabic-speaking societies either by family-centrist monarchies [an extension of the Arab tribal system] or republics run by army officers with little education and no cultural formation whatsoever [and who were in a not inconsiderable number of cases characterized by personal and family corruption unprecedented in human history].
Nearly half a century after the independence of Arabic-speaking societies, revolutions broke out against the regimes to which had devolved the reins of power in the post-independence stage. The big surprise was that they erupted from a totally unexpected source. The revolution many thought would come either from the destitute masses living in slums and shanty towns or from converts to the ideas of Islamic fundamentalism surprised the whole world by being spearheaded by the educated sons and daughters of the middle class who, thanks to technology [specifically modern communications technology], understood the meaning of citizenship and the obligations of rulers in contemporary societies.
While there is a way out of the fix for Arab monarchies – at least theoretically – represented in their transformation from absolute to constitutional monarchies, the only way out for Arab republics is to respond to the wonderful slogan of the revolution: "the people demand the fall of the regime." For the leaders of the Arab republics [due to their extremely low standard of education and lack of culture, not to mention the unprecedented levels of corruption they, their families and cronies have been guilty of over the years] are not susceptible of reform and must inevitably be removed [as the Tunisians removed Ben Ali and the Egyptians removed Mubarak]. These corrupt and destructive leaders must be tried and held accountable to set an example for their successors. The strange thing about Arab societies is that the oil sheikhs were relatively wiser in most matters than the oil soldiers [Libya, Iraq and Algeria for example] and those whose crimes in general and thieving in particular are beyond human imagination.
Muslim history attained its most brilliant period of intellectual and cultural life in the four centuries following the seventh century A.D. During that period, hundreds of books were translated from the Greek, especially in the fields of science, logic and philosophy. As a result of this dynamic quest for knowledge, Arabic-speaking societies produced many schools of thought, with independent scholars giving different interpretations of Islam, and established institutes of learning that focused primarily on natural sciences and mathematics.
However, throughout this golden age intellectual life was caught in a conflict between a conservative trend that insisted on a literal interpretation of holy texts and exalted the practices of the first generations of Muslims (the Pious Ancestors!) and a liberal trend that upheld the primacy of reason. The former trend was represented by the Sunni jurists who succeeded Abu Hanifa Al-No'man, the founder of the science of Islamic jurisprudence.
Each of the jurists belonging to this school of thought was more conservative than his predecessor. Thus Ibn Hanbal was more conservative than Mohamed Ibn Idriss Al-Shafei, while Al-Shafei was more conservative than Malik, who was more conservative than Abu Hanifa. As to the thinkers whose interest lay in philosophy and logic, their thinking was more liberal. Most prominent among them were the Mu'tazalites, Ibn Sina, Faraby and the greatest champion of rationality and deductive reasoning, the Andalusian Ibn Rushd.
While the three centuries running from the beginning of the ninth century saw a fierce war playing out between the conservative school [the proponents of orthodoxy and tradition] and the more liberal thinkers [who applied the rules of logic, philosophy and reason], by the eleventh and twelfth centuries the conservatives had emerged as the clear victors. Their victory was reflected in the attitude of the political establishment, which tipped sharply in favour of the conservatives, and the concomitant hostility against the school of reason which had been inspired in a way by the spirit of Greek philosophy. Capitalizing on the victory they had scored over the proponents of reason, the conservative traditionalists came up with a series of fatwas that essentially condemned those who relied on deductive reasoning as heretics.
Arguably the most important of these fatwas was the one propounded by Al-Sharthoury in the twelfth century, in which he decried the use of deductive reasoning as sinful and denounced those who resorted to such methods as possessed by the devil.
The victory of the traditionalists over the rationalists reached its peak with the heresy charges leveled by Muslim jurists against such luminaries as Al-Faraby [870–950 AD], Ibn Sina [980–1037 AD] and Ibn Rushd [1126–1198 AD].
That this regressive trend enjoyed the support of the political establishment is borne out by many examples, such as Al-Mu'tassem's blind support of the Hanbalites who were given the green light to slaughter their Mu'tazalite rivals in the alleys of Damascus; and the burning of Ibn Rushd's books in Cordova on the orders of the ruler. By the end of the twelfth century, the school of reason had virtually ceased to exist. As a result, Arabic-speaking societies entered the sixteenth century stripped of the faculty of critical thinking, their ulamas interested only in compilation. This rendered them vulnerable to external forces and they fell easy prey to the European colonizers. At the same time that the conservative traditionalists were consolidating their victory over the school of reason, logic and philosophy in Arabic-speaking societies, the peoples of Europe were going through a reverse process which was in essence to enable the proponents of free thinking end the dominion and control exercised by the conservatives over European societies. With the triumph of the school of free thinking in Europe, it was normal for the new liberal climate to lead to a scientific renaissance in many fields. For example, the discovery of gunpowder enabled the Europeans to push ahead with their colonization project and expand their dominion over many parts of the world, including Arabic-speaking societies.
What happened in Tunisia and Egypt and what is now happening in many Arab countries cannot be properly understood except through the historical-dialectical perspective described here on the intellectual history of the Arabic-speaking societies over the last fourteen centuries.